tv Conversation With David Ritz CSPAN May 10, 2015 9:45am-10:31am EDT
available. there's a handout outside the shows how to purchase it available online on amazon, et cetera. ptb join me for a round of applause for lance price. [applause] and also for our commentator, narayan lakshman. [applause] >> thank you all for coming. we are adjourned. >> you are watching tv on c-span2 pictures look at a primetime line.
>> host: what do you do for a living? >> guest: i am a ghost writer. >> host: what is a ghost writer? >> guest: a ghost writer is an author who writes in the first person of another person. >> host: how did you get into that business? >> guest: it's a long story. the short end of the story is i was an advertising guy after college and after graduate school and i made up my mind i was going to go meet ray charles and talking into letting me do an authorized biography of the because wanted to win the pulitzer prize and nobel prize advantage of a think about
ghostwriting. so i had hard time introducing myself to him, sort of getting to the i was able to do it through my tenacity. and when i did this agent i had told me you want to do his autobiography. and i said no i don't. and he said yesterday. i said i don't know how to do that. i don't know what a ghost writer does. he says, well you will earn a lot more money if you do it, if you do a ghost written book because it's a much larger market for a ray charles book it and i said i still don't want to do it. i want to do a biography under my own name. and then my agent asked me a
question that really can change my life life. and the question was which both would you prefer to actually read a book written by an egghead like you about ray charles, or a book about ray charles written in ray's voice? i said i would much prefer to read the book in ray's voice. and he said you should write the book you want to read not the one they believe you should write. so the kind of changed everything. and then when i got with ray and i discovered there was a kind of musicality in his voice, because as you know, we learn to speak before we learn to think. then it occurred to me, if there's a musicality in his voice and if i can create his voice on the page from in other
words, whenever can find them, when the eye of meat becomes the eye of him then i'll be sort of making music. there is anything i would rather do than make music. and then in doing raise a voice i discovered i had a gift for it. i'm not sure what the gift is that if something about the approximation of the voice. because as you know, if you just give a transcription, in other words, you know the words until you know, if you're just kind of transcribed and japan agreed a transcription, and the context of a book that is not a good representation of my book -- mike boyce. one thing i learned early on is that the eye here's much
different than they do. so when you try to create a literary voice isn't artistic act. gets on art. you are creating the impression that this person talking to you is talking to in a conversational way. so in order to do that you have to move from the literal transcription to the kind of scoping, a kind of i don't know exactly what to call it but you are sort of getting a person a literary voice. and that as they said is art. it's not clerical function. as i before they can to do at present it was. >> host: did you have any connection to bring charles? did you have any connection to writing?
>> guest: i had written in high school and in college and i grinned advertising and i'm an academic essays and journalism that i've done a lot of writing. so i mean i was comparable with the act but not this act of being a ghost. goes entirely new. i went to a college and majored in english. i went to graduate school. i got an m.a. in english but all that collegiate training didn't prepare me for being a ghostwriter. i had never contemplated. i've never taken a course in the daily two books i really had word, when was the autobiography of billie holliday the lady sings the blues which i loved as a young boy, and i knew that was written by a ghostwriter because our member i read the book when i was about 12 or 13, and there
was, it had on the cover as told to william duffy. i remember asking my father who is this guy? my father said is probably the guy who actually wrote the book the and i said no no, no. the book was written by billie holliday. it's all in her voice and she's talking to you. i remember my father telling me well, that's what he sort of does for her. he's giving you the idea that she's actually writing the book. then i remember asking does he get to go over to billie holliday's house? and my father said i presume he does. and then i remember, i said, that's the job i want. and that's the job i have. >> host: so when we look at some of the books you have ghost written, it's a long story, my life willie nelson. >> guest: it's just about to hit the stores. >> host: with the david ritz.
>> guest: their i am on the cover at the bottom. >> host: did you. on the cover of the ray charles -- >> guest: i have always appeared i think in every book other than one. my name is always appeared on the cover. you know, in the beginning when i began i did the ray charles but edited a number of other books, it is important for me that -- i still had gotten over this idea that ghostwriters are looked at as something of a subcategory. but it took me a long time just to be comfortable with that. >> host: another book with just your name on it. >> guest: that's a whole different story, and that's billy cundiff has ever happened to me. in 1995 i met aretha franklin after chasing her for years.
i had done this book with ray charles and inexplicable entity was aretha because i loved her and i love her music as passionately as i love the music of ray charles, and she wasn't interested. typical of me, i would have chased after artist and i will mail the postcards and colin until i can get a meeting and hopefully charmed them into hiring. and in her case, i did in the mid 1950s. in the mid 1990s she hired me to ghost write her autobiography. but this was an instance where i did come and the only instance where i didn't deliver the kind of book that i really wanted to. i had a hard time sort of gaining any emotional intimacy with her. and they didn't get her to reveal very much about her inner
life. so the book came out and i wasn't happy with the book. so it took about 14 years and continued my research on her. at an october of 2014 i put out my own biography of aretha that i call respect it because i didn't feel i had honored her art or the complexities of her story enough in doing her autobiography. but i don't expect to do that again anytime soon. in other words, the book that i've done on great charles or a b.b. king or smokey robinson or marvin gay, i am pleased with the i don't mean they are perfect books, but i feel as though from a historical point of view if you want to get to know these people and get them
talking to you and you and telling you their stories and the book i've done with them are accurate and good and filled with funk and soul and heart. but in the case of aretha i just didn't feel that way. i felt i owed it to her and to history to do my own version host the david ritz, when you make an arrangement such as with willie nelson or smokey robinson, first of all, is there a nondisclosure agreement? do you can you be censored by the main author by willie nelson? >> guest: yes. i'm glad you asked that because that's what those interesting things about my work. i can avoid all control that i have no control. i remember once, peter, i was at
a conference in austin on a panel of loggers and his biographer at the incident richard shouldn't be because -- david ritz should be because he's a ghostwriter and that's not a biographer. one of the reasons i can't trust his book is because he is no editorial control over the content. and i had to agree with them. i didn't agree with him that i shouldn't be on the panel and had to point out to him who the holy bible is a ghost written book, we don't know who the off of it is other than the holy ghost and/or other excellent ghost written books, the autobiography of malcolm x by alex hays is looked at as a classic but going back to point of control, one of the points i made with that when you give
control away, when it is an issue, you get more control because control is on the table as a point of contention. it is in any so that the star, knowing that he or she has the ultimate editorial content and control over content can relax ng were able to gain more intimacy that way. and usual at the end of the process i have gained enough of the trust of the star that i can pretty much control the content of the book. now, you know, there are times that they don't want this in there or that in there but generally i tend to think our biggest addiction cobalt is control. and anytime i can give away control i am a happy person, and i think i work with greater
integrity and greater empathy. because what ghost writing is really all about is empathy and compassion. because in order to get people to open up their hearts and tell you what happened in their lives, their conflicts, they have to feel as though you were not judging him and that you love them on a certain level. and so when, if i've done well and i think i have come it's because i've been able to open up my heart with the people that i work with and established this kind of intimate report. because, you know, in a certain way i'm a circuit for the person who reads the book. i'm a circuit for the reader. many, many many people would like to be in my position and get to hang out with ray charles on willie nelson for days and
>> you can't make, you can't make a living. and if you're making a living, you can't have a nervous breakdown. so for me as a freelance writer for the last 40 some years it's been really important to make a living and not go nuts. and ghost writing has been a great way for me to keep my head above water from a financial point of view. because there's a built-in market for stars. they have an audience. and also they come to you with a story. so now, you know, i have written biographies and novels and essays. i mean, i've written lots of
stuff. but i go -- i keep my concentration on ghost writing because it's where part art and commerce sort of meet for me. and i am a commercial writer at heart. i mean, i want people to read my books, and i want them to have a large audience. i'm conscious of that. and i've always been. and that's partially because i come out of the advertising business. i've learned to write at an advertising agency, i learned to write and copy. so i think once a copy writer, always a copy writer in a certain sense. but as i said before, the surprise for me, you know, i gave up advertising because it became too easy and hacknied, and creative challenge was gone. i've been ghost writing now for maybe 41 years and i'm still
challenged because it's hard and you don't ever sort of get it right. and the idea were you to ask me to ghost write your booker you know, i'd have to get to know you -- your book, you know, i'd have to get to know you i'd have to try to enter into your heart and your head and get a good kind of feeling for how you use words and how you tell stories. and, you know, i might pull it off or i might not pull it off. and then even beyond the sort of mechanics of -- there's also will i be a good enough psychologist to get you to open up and will i ask you the right questions, will i give you enough space which i haven't been able to do in this interview because i've been sort of talking whole time. >> host: what if you agreed to write that book and i said i don't want your name on it?
>> guest: that'd be hard. that actually has happened to me a couple of times. now, it's interesting you ask me that because i think i would like to be a person who could answer you and tell you i wouldn't care. i think that would be a more chilled out version of me. however, my ego -- now ego i mean one of the reasons i'm happy to be a ghost writer is because i think had i sort of made it big as a non-ghost writer, as a david baldacci or a steven king or james joyce, i would be incorrigible. my megalo mania would go nuts, and you wouldn't be able to talk to me. i'd be just like a -- and but because ghost writing, in order to be a ghost writer, a good ghost writer and get lots of gigs, you have to deal with your
ego, and you have to submerge and suppress and tend to the hunger of your ego. it just can't have what it wants, because what it wants is what i told you in the original story. it wants to win the nobel prize. it wants to win the pulitzer prize. and that isn't going to happen in an autobiography. it's just. no so i thank -- it's just not. so i thank god for being a ghost writer because i wanted to earn money and get more gigs. i've trained myself to tend to the sort of gnawing demands of my ego. so i'm sort of relatively
chilled out in that area. but not completely. so to go back to your question, if you said to me do my book but i don't want your name on it, my answer to you might be, well, good. but give me another $80,000 to keep off my name. >> host: do you get a set fee or is it based on -- >> guest: no, no no, every book is a different sort of negotiation. there are no rule ares. you know, you have an agent. your agent usually negotiates with the star's manager. but every book is, every book is different. >> host: somebody else you've written with is tavis smiley. >> guest: yeah. i love tavis. >> host: how'd you get to know tavis? you've written a couple of books with him. >> guest: yeah. this is number three, and we're working on number four.
how did can i meet tavis? oh yeah, the publisher of doubleday at the time, a man named steve reuben, had tavis under contract for an autobiography. and i had just written a book for steve about walter -- [inaudible] who was a big mogul in the music business. he was president of columbia records during the michael jackson days. and in any event, reuben thought that tavis and i would be a good combination, so he put us together, and i wrote with tavis his autobiography. and then last year he and i did a book together about martin luther king jr. the last year in his life. and recently we've worked
together on this book on maya angelou about his relationship to maya angelou. but tavis is sort of the ideal collaborator because he appreciates what i do, you know, and shows me great respect. and also i love how he speaks, and i love his voice. and he's intrinsically a good storyteller, so it's been great combination. >> host: is the ghost writing business a pretty big business that we don't necessarily know about? is. >> guest: yeah. the one area we haven't talked about is deep ghosts which means that you don't have your name on it. you touched upon it earlier. but a deep ghost is a person who has ghost written a book for typically politicians will use a deep ghost because they want to
give the idea that they actually wrote the book. and i don't know i haven't done a survey on it, but i think -- i don't know whether a majority of books written by politicians are ghost written, but a large number of books written by politicians are ghost written. so yeah it's -- and i, i'll tell you one interesting story about that. i was once on an airplane going to a conference, and i was next to a guy who's a well known novel who i won't name because i don't want to hurt his feelings. and he asked me what i did for a living, and i told him. and he said well, that's interesting. and then i -- he asked me what which books i had done, and i told him. and he said the only problem i have with that he said, is i don't have a lot of respect for a person who wants to write his
life story and does not do it by himself. and i turned to him, and i said, why? you can have a great story but not have the chops to be able to tell it. and just because you don't have the chops to write it doesn't mean that the world shouldn't enjoy it. i mean, you know not everybody knows how to write a 400-page book cohesively and authentically. i mean, it's hard to do it. and so i think i think there'll always be a need for ghost writers, and i'm glad. because there will always be people with compelling stories to tell who just don't have the
training to do it. so it's -- i hope to do it until i can't do it anymore. >> host: david ritz, what's your connection to marvin gaye? >> guest: well, i loved him a lot. he was another guy i chased after because i wanted to do his autobiography. i just adored him. had been listening to him ever since i was a kid, and in 1979 he put out -- 1978 he put it out called "hear my gear" which was an autobiographical treatment autobiographical musical treatment of the acrimonious divorce he was going through with his wife. and the critics absolutely panned it. and i loved it.
and i wrote a letter to "the new york times" praising and arguing with the critics attacking him hoping he would read the her in the times -- in read the letter in the times. he did and he called me. we got together, and we began working on his book. at the time he was not in great shape, and he went to hawaii and england and wound up in belgium. he wound up in europe, in belgium. and i went to belgium to continue to work on his autobiography. and that's where we wrote " sexual healing" together, the song, which was my way of trying to help him understand just what he was going through. so anyway, we wrote the song together. it was a big hit. he came back to the united states but most tragically he
was murdered by his dad in 1984 before he and i had a chance to complete his autobiography. so i took, i took a year, and in 1985 i wrote a book called "divided soul," which was my biography of him. and that's, again unusual for me because it was not a ghost written book. had i -- given a choice i would have much preferred to have done his autobiography but i couldn't. he wasn't there to approve it. he was gone. though the book "divided soul" was, you know, full of marvin's voice and quotes and our conversations we had over the year. but he's an artist. i mean, there isn't any artist who i really love anymore. he was very aristocratic and sweet and gentle and troubled.
but charismatic in a very unusual way, very -- he was like a prince. he was princely. he had an elevated consciousness but also had a wicked drug problem. >> host: and, in fact, when you wrote that song, you were pretty well gone on cocaine too, weren't you? >> guest: well, we were high i mean, almost all the time that i worked with marvin, i don't think i was ever with him when we weren't high together. i mean, his main thing was pot and at the time i was a heavy pot smoker, and he always had cocaine. so i don't -- yeah. i mean the answer's yes. >> host: have you made a lot of money off that song? >> guest: yeah. >> host: do you still make money today off that song? >> >> guest: yeah, yeah. no it's been an incredible international hit. helped put my kid through
college. it's been, it's been sort of amazing how popular that song has been over the years. and it's one of the proudest accomplishments for me because you know, the idea that i would get to work with marvin gaye and that i could help him put into a song what was going through his mind. and he liked tavis. he was also a wonderful collaborator in that he appreciated, he appreciated me, and i think -- when he saw literary talent, because he was a very kind of literary person himself, you know, he read, he knew the bible and the quran and so forth, he was encouraging and full of praise for others. >> host: seems like you've worked with a lot of african-american artists.
>> guest: yeah. >> host: ghost writing. >> guest: uh-huh. i have. >> host: why? >> guest: i just love african-american culture, and i love the music and it's always kind of drawn me, and it's what i listen to all day long. it's what i listened to when i was 8, 9 years old. and part of what has given me my motivation is that i'm drawn to the music, but then i'm drawn to the musicians so i can try to understand what drives them, i mean what in their past or what in their head or what in their heart enables them to create this amazing music. so, you know i kind of -- my life i kind of move to the grooves of african-american music, to jazz and gospel and r&b.
what's your background? >> guest: i'm jewish. i was born jewish in new york in 1943. i'm 71 years old. i became a christian in 2005, maybe nine or ten years ago. and it's interesting too because you asked me about african-american music. i was also, i've also always been drawn to the african-american church. and when i was a little boy, i remember going to the african-american churches, and everybody seemed to not just be having a good time, but something was happening in there that seemed important and rich and warm and loving and encouraging. but, you know, i always had my nose pressed against a glass. and when i got to be an old man, i'm 60 or something years old kind of made up my mind, i think i'll go in that church. so i'm in that church.
and am getting the kind of nurturing that i've always, always wanted to have. and it's because of the music that drew me into the church. it wasn't the theology, although, i mean, that's a whole other subject. but it's the, it's the love and the positive energy and the acceptance of others that i hear in the music. you know the glow the excitement, the kind of nurturing that i hear in the music that i think is holy. and, you know interesting one thing about aretha is in this book i wrote, "respect," one of the reasons she's as great as
she is, because she had a father who was a well known preacher in the african-american community. his name is reverend c.l. franklin. and one of the things he taught her is that it's all god; jazz, r&b. in other words, he kind of went against the tradition of the times and said you can't sing pop if you sing gospel. and one of the reasons she is such a great singer, she has no conflicts about that. and that's what i believe. i believe you can listen to lightning hopkins and muddy waters and b.b. king and be as prayerful as listening to mahalia jackson or a claret ward: >> host: nondisclosure agreements, are there things that you would have liked to put
in the willie nelson book, but you have signed a legal agreement saying no, i can't put that in here, and you can't talk about it? >> guest: no, i didn't have any -- no, i didn't have any nondisclosure agreement. as i told you b they have editorial control, so they can cut out what they want to cut out. now, maybe that equals nondisclosure. but, in other words, i didn't see a piece of paper that now says i cannot tell the world what he told me not to tell. in the case of willie nelson he sort of basically did tell everything. but he's a generous guy, and he's a gentle man, and he didn't he didn't throw anyone under the bus gratuitously. but, yeah. that whole issue of nondisclosure and censorship has
never been an impediment to my work other than that in the case of -- other than in the case of aretha where i did kind of feel that i wanted to tell more, that there was more to the story. >> host: has your stutter been an impediment in your lifetime? >> guest: you know, it's interesting that you that you mention that. the music critic, robert priscow, recently did a review of the aretha book. and in it he did an overview of my career. it was a very generous article and i appreciate it very much. but in it he said he thought that my stutter helped me gain the sympathy and empathy of people i talk to. and because as a stutterer i
appear to be more empathetic or vulnerable than perhaps i am, though i do think i'm pretty empathetic and vulnerable. that, in his view my speech impediment has helped me as a ghost writer. and i think he might be right. i know that i've struggled with it my whole life, and, you know, someone asked me the other day if you took a pill and it would make your stutter go away would you? i probably would, you know? i still think i fantasize about complete fluency but it's me. and i think the great thing about being a stutterer is that you do have to overcome it.
i mean, you do have to kind of agree to have an interview with you on national tv and say well, what the hell, i'm going to stutter but -- it don't look too good and it don't sound too good, but it's me. and there's that, that it is an emotional obstacle you have to come. and the other good thing about it is that it is an honest representation of my mood at any given time. in other words with you in this interview i have stuttered much less than i normally do because you have made me comfortable, just your kind of vibe has. another interviewer had, you know, maybe was a bit harsher or impatient or was worried about -- i mean, i kind of knew you were comfortable with my stutter. so i have stuttered but it
hasn't been kind of crazy. were you a different person who ooh, i'm kind of feeling nervous, this guy's interviewing me, i would stutter much more. and that would be honest. does that make any sense to you? >> host: sure. >> guest: so in that regard, it's a good barometer of what's going on with me from an emotional point of view. >> host: david ritz, if a politician approached you to write a policy book or a history book a would you take the assignment and b, what would go into that? >> guest: well, you know, it's interesting that you, that you mention that. one of my fantasies as a ghost writer is to be a political ghost writer. i would love to write
presidential speeches. i think it'd be a kick in the head. and i think i've got the chops to do it, you know? i think i could get obama's rhythms down and do it. but, you know, no one's ever offered me the gig. but to answer your question, if i like the politician -- i mean, i wouldn't do it with a politician who i didn't think was up to good or whose politics were way off mine. but if i felt comfortable with the politician's point of view and i felt he was up to good, i would positively do it. i mean, you know, one analogy about a ghost writer, i guess it's kind of like you're kind of like an attorney in court. you're arguing for your client, and what you're arguing for the client is two words, it is
basically believe me. and i'll do it if i believe the person. in other words, i've worked with musical stars where we haven't where i haven't quite believed them, and it didn't work out. so, yeah. i mean, the idea of doing a book with a politician would, would be great. and i've done books, i did -- i've done books with sports stars, gary sheffield was is, was a baseball player. laila ali, muhammad ali's daughter. i've done all kinds of books and i would love to do a book with a politician. >> host: does your name get out
there? once you've got your name on a book, does somebody see it? how does it snowball into another book or another contract? >> guest: well, i'm still hustling. i mean, i believe in the hustle. you know, i'll tell you a quick story. when i did my first book the ray charles book, i thought it was all over. i thought the next day i'd get a call from paul mccartney, mick jagger eric clapton, and i'd just have gigs for the rest of my life because, you know ray charles is such a mega star. nobody called. nobody called. and one of the things i learned is that i can't count on the bookings that i've done to generate more work for me, that i have to continue to go out and -- now i have an agent who i love, and he's also very proactive, and his name is
david. but i, i don't take anything for, anything for granted. but i also have to say -- and maybe this is what has kept me as a ghost writer who's always been able to work -- i like the hustle. i mean, i like cold calls and i think it's good to hustle. i think it's good for us to look for work and expose ourselves and be, i mean, in other words to kind of risk rejection. i think it's good for the soul. because to be too protective to say, well, i'm not going to talk to this person because they may reject me, i mean, that isn't me. i mean it's okay to be rejected, but i try to tell people when i meet them the truth. and if i want to do your book,
i'll just look you in the eye and tell you i really, really want to do your book. so i try not to be kind of too proud. >> host: what are you working on right now? >> guest: well, we have a contract -- can i have a contract with tavis. this is our let's see one two, three fourth book together. and we're working on a book about the last 16 weeks in the life of michael jackson. so it's sort of a condensed michael jackson book. that's my current. ..
i'm doing a graphic book with an artist about the history of my relationship to close, which is interesting both because i'm kind of a clothing not. i want to do this graphic book. i'm always working for or five or six things at the same time. >> host: are you writing any songs? >> guest: and. i've recently written some gospel songs with a good how of mind. i wrote a couple of r&b songs, a couple of months ago. i almost would rather write a song than anything. i really kind of love it all.